In a season in which they've been desperately starving for treats, the St. Louis Rams pulled off a trick that no one could have realistically seen coming.
There was essentially no evidence that suggested the Rams would orchestrate the most shocking result of this Halloween weekend -- and this wildly unpredictable 2011 NFL campaign as well -- with Sunday's 31-21 upset of a presumed New Orleans Saints juggernaut that had just recorded the highest regular-season single-game point total in 26 years.
St. Louis had scored fewer points (56) over the entire course of a season- opening six-game losing streak it brought into its seemingly-harrowing matchup than the explosive Saints put up in just four quarters of last week's 62-7 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts. The injury-riddled Rams also had to face its high-powered foe without their projected top three cornerbacks and were starting a career backup quarterback who hadn't won a game since 2004.
Not a chance, right? Well, everyone thought the same thing about the prospects of another St. Louis tenant capturing a world championship just over a month ago.
Finally, the Rams resembled the team pegged in the preseason as a legitimate playoff contender. A defense that was shredded for nearly 300 rushing yards in its most recent appearance swarmed to the football with a relentless abandon, sacking Drew Brees five times and intercepting the accomplished New Orleans quarterback twice. Running back Steven Jackson, now completely over a quadriceps injury that had hamstrung both he and the offense, regained his prior Pro Bowl form with a dominating 159-yard, two-touchdown display. A.J. Feeley, filling in once again for hobbled prodigy Sam Bradford under center, executed maligned coordinator Josh McDaniels' game plan with a serviceable competency.
"We always thought that [type of performance] was in us," said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo afterward.
While Spagnuolo's inspired charges made Sunday a nightmare for both the good people of the Gulf Coast and the countless number of those who had the Saints in their survivor pools, a couple of other down-and-out teams gave a scare to their heavily-favored opponents in this wild Week 8. A one-win Arizona contingent gave the suddenly-skittish Baltimore Ravens all they could handle in what turned out to be the most exciting game of the afternoon, while the lowly Miami Dolphins battled the New York Giants to the wire as well before ultimately being left with yet another tough-to-take defeat.
There are two ways to view Baltimore's exhaustive 30-27 victory over the visiting Cardinals, in which the Ravens overcame a 21-point second-quarter deficit to register the largest comeback in franchise history. The optimist will see a gritty and resilient effort by a veteran team that didn't panic amidst the difficult circumstances and the very vocal cries of displeasure from a frustrated M&T Bank Stadium crowd. The glass-half-full type, however, will point out the indisputably sloppy early play unbecoming of an expected top- level team, with turnovers, penalties and special-teams blunders all contributing to Baltimore's 24-3 first-half hole.
"We don't need to be doing that, to be the kind of team we want to be," a relieved Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of his club's series of mistakes.
For the spiraling Dolphins, now losers of nine in a row dating back to last season, Sunday's 20-17 setback to the NFC East-leading Giants was another missed opportunity. Miami failed to hold onto to a double-digit advantage for a second consecutive week, with its playmaker-deficient offense sputtering for the remainder of the game after scoring touchdowns on its initial two possessions.
Despite the familiar and painful outcome (though there's little question a sizeable segment of the fan base clamoring for a chance at Andrew Luck in next year's draft was rejoicing over the final score), the Dolphins do deserve some credit for continuing to compete in a season that already reached the point of hopelessness several weeks ago. Stephen Ross may no longer have faith in Tony Sparano, but the Miami players have certainly demonstrated their support of their lame-duck head coach with their refusal to quit.
That desire didn't go unnoticed on the opposing sideline.
"I think Tony Sparano is a hell of a coach," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "He got his guys ready to play under really difficult circumstances. If you can imagine being up 15-0 [last week] and losing the game, then having to come in here on the road the following week, I give him a lot of credit. You have to take your hat off to the Miami team. They came in and played hard."
Some other observations from just your typical ho-hum, true-to-form weekend in the NFL:
What exactly is going on in New England? Just a few days after surprisingly releasing cornerback Leigh Bodden, one of the team's few proven cover men and who was due a guaranteed $2.1 million for the remainder of the season, for reasons unknown (though there's clearly more to the move underneath the surface), the Patriots' patchwork secondary was absolutely shredded by Ben Roethlisberger and an impressive corps of Pittsburgh receivers in the resurgent Steelers' 25-17 win. Over the last two months, Bill Belichick's now cut loose a two-time Pro Bowl safety (Brandon Meriweather), a second-round draft pick (Darius Butler) and two players with nearly 120 games of starting experience (Bodden and James Sanders) from the defensive backfield and gotten nothing in return.
The Eagles lived up to the hype in Sunday's 34-7 dismantling of division-rival Dallas, by far Philadelphia's most complete performance of its poorly-started season. Andy Reid's rested bunch rolled up an eye-popping 239 yards on the ground against the NFL's No. 1 ranked run defense in making Rob Ryan eat the inflammatory and inciting preseason words the colorful Dallas coordinator had for his team's heavily-billed rival over the summer. Who would have thought the Eagles, one of the most pass-oriented teams under Reid's command in recent years, would be leading the NFL in rushing yards midway through a season?
Score one for the Tim Tebow detractors. The popular and polarizing college legend did little to dissuade the popular notion that his unique style of quarterback play isn't cut out for the NFL with a brutal outing in Denver's frightening 45-10 Halloween eve loss to Detroit. Take away those two terrific late drives that spurred last week's comeback win in Miami, and the former Heisman Trophy winner has completed just 22-of-53 passes (41.5 percent) for 212 yards in nearly two full games of action since taking over as the Broncos' starter.
Staying on the subject of struggling young quarterbacks, the learning curve for Blaine Gabbert continues to be considerably steeper for the Jacksonville triggerman compared to the rest of this year's promising rookie crop of signal- callers. The 22-year-old was a woeful 10-of-30 for 97 yards and two interceptions in the Jaguars' 24-14 loss at Houston on Sunday, which did little to ease the growing concerns about his long-term prognosis or that of embattled head coach Jack Del Rio.
Hands-down winner of this week's "Just Shut Up Already" award is Donovan McNabb for his highly-entertaining interview that aired on the NFL Network's GameDay Morning program. The displaced Minnesota quarterback's refusal to take any blame for the Vikings' 1-5 record with him as a starter and delusional denial of his own eroding abilities has only reinforced a reputation for being hypersensitive, somewhat disingenuous and concerned with protecting his own legacy above all else. It'll be interesting to see when and to what extent McNabb takes and receives credit for his "mentorship" of Christian Ponder if the rookie develops into a high-level player.
Need a cure for a lifeless pass rush? Call on Dr. John Beck. The Buffalo Bills entered Sunday's bout with Washington having registered an anemic four sacks in six games. They had nine of the ball-holding Beck, who's now been taken down an alarming 23 times in 192 career pass attempts, en route to a 23-0 blanking of the fading Redskins in Toronto -- the first time a Mike Shanahan team has been shut out in his 24 seasons as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, according to STATS LLC.
A note for those still reserving judgement on the surprising Cincinnati Bengals, now 5-2 and a half-game out of first place in the well-stocked AFC North following Sunday's 34-12 road drubbing of lightly-regarded Seattle, due to the absence of any eyebrow-raising wins (though their earlier victory over the fellow-upstart Bills is looking better by the week). The next three weeks should serve as a strong indicator of the team's true chances of contending for a playoff spot, as the Bengals travel to Tennessee next Sunday before back-to- back showdowns with division kingpins Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Though Chris Johnson and Frank Gore both received long-term extensions prior to the season following training-camp protests, it's become evident as to which of the two star running backs has been giving his team it's money's worth. Gore ripped off a fourth-straight game of over 125 rushing yards with a workmanlike 31-carry, 134-yard outburst in San Francisco's 20-10 triumph over Cleveland, while Johnson's thoroughly-disappointing 2011 campaign continued when the Titans' speedster managed just 34 yards on 14 carries against Indianapolis' 31st-ranked run defense this past weekend (far less expensive Javon Ringer had 60 yards on the same amount of attempts, by the way). Johnson, who didn't attend a day of training camp, is averaging 43 yards and 2.8 yards per rush on the season. Gore, whose holdout only lasted a handful of days, is averaging 96 yards and 4.8 per pop.